A Vietnam memoir for a cause

If you only watched movies or documentaries about it, it would seem that most of the combat in the Vietnam War occurred in rural areas thick with trees and undergrowth, or rice fields and the small villages near them.

But a new memoir, written by Royal Hettling of Minneota, Minn., with additional

BOOKJACKEThalfinch
Book cover art and design by Dana Miller

contributions from some of the men he served with, highlights a different Vietnam experience. A different experience in a different combat zone, which, nevertheless, was still often deadly and dangerous — and forever shaped the life, and outlook on life, of Hettling, who was 19 at the time.

The book was released this weekend. Order here:

The book is titled Ten: Five-Five: Boots-on-the-Ground True Stories of a Midwestern Boy and Fellow Handlers Who Served in the Vietnam War. Hettling served in the 483rd Security Police Squadron’s K-9 Unit in 1970-71. It is a fund-raiser for the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota.

Hettling and others in the squadron were patrol dog handlers, much like K-9 police officers today, but more frequently in intense circumstances. They patrolled a fuel and munitions depot at an Air Force Base at Cam Ranh Bay along the southeastern coast of Vietnam. Their job was to work with observation-tower spotters to prevent Viet Cong guerrilla soldiers from penetrating the base and trying to blow up the large fuel tanks and bombs stored there. If the Viet Cong did get in, either by water or through the trees, it was up to the K-9 handlers to find them and stop them: kill or capture them, in other words. Ten: Five-Five was a radio code used by the handlers, which they called in to the command center when their dogs saw or sensed an apparent threat.

It is a well-written and researched book, Hettling’s own experiences backed up by research by the book’s editor, Minneota native Dana Miller, and some of the other soldiers. The research provides more information on specific incidents and overall context on Cam Ranh Bay’s importance as a base, and its proximity to a Vietnamese village — and context of the war during the time Hettling was there.

On several occasions, Hettling and others engaged in combat with the Viet Cong soldiers — small arms firefights usually. One time, he flushed out Viet Cong spies drifting near shore in a sampan by firing rocket-propelled grenades across the boat. He also came under artillery fire as the Viet Cong shelled the base from positions outside its perimeter.

Men die in this book, sometimes they are no more than children — teenaged soldiers amped up on drugs, sent in by Viet Cong at night to try to fix explosive charges to fuel tanks. Men come close to dying in this book, Hettling included.

There is bravery. U.S. soldiers sometimes rushed in on the heels of saboteurs, yanked explosives off the fuel tanks and heaved them away before they could explode. How, I once asked Hettling, could someone do that? What if the explosives had blown up in their hands, killing them? His response: In the heat of combat, you don’t think about what could happen. You think about what you need to do. And do it.

There is camaraderie. Lifelong friendships were formed among the men in the 483rd. book backThere is war-time humor,  homesickness, holiday parties, and close bonds formed between handlers and their dogs. (Hettling worked with a dog named Thunder, each of them trusting his life to the other night after night.)

There is also some coming of age, as Hettling, the Minnesota farm boy, discusses geopolitics with Vietnamese civilians and finds himself wondering about the purpose of the war; along with his reflections on life after battles. And there are moments of remarkable human decency amid all the fighting.

The book is divided into short, easy-to-digest chapters, and supplemented with a strong array of photos — original photos of Hettling and his fellow soldiers at Cam Ranh Bay, photos of the aftermath of battles, and a well-done then-and-now photo section. The book a contains useful, informative glossary, appendixes and documents (including reproducing original paperwork for Hettling’s tour of duty). There are also two sections about the commanding officer at Cam Ranh Bay, a colonel with his own amazing story of World War II heroics.

In short, buy the book because it is a good read and an important addition to our understanding of the Vietnam War. It is also a strong addition to the literary field of southwest Minnesota, a region, of course, rich in writing heritage.

But here’s another reason to buy the book: all proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota, operated by Royal Hettling and his brother Charlie. A remarkable museum with interpretive displays, telling multiple perspectives of the war. It had to move into a new building last year and the brothers continue to seek funding to help with the transition.

 

Farewell, Phil

One of the best, and most important, poets in the country — and an important influence on my own poetry writing — died July 7. Philip Dacey was my friend, my former teacher and, although I came late to writing poetry (or maybe because I came late to it) was someone who helped deepen my appreciation and understanding of  it.

I am not the only one affected by Phil’s writing and guidance, nor by his death. One of the editors of the Stoneboat Literary Journal wrote a wonderful blog upon learning about Phil’s death. I share many of the blog’s sentiments.

Phil was a strong supporter of my writing, in direct and indirect ways.  After close to three decades of writing for newspapers, I wrote my first group of full poems in 2008. They became the book Grace, and lo and behold, on the back cover was a long, complimentary blurb from Phil about the poems and the book. I had not sought it, nor expected it, but it blew me away to see it. I’d taken one poetry class from him years before at SMSU and written a couple stories about him, not enough to really build a relationship. So to see the blurb was really something. After that,  we became closer friends, through e-mails, sharing poems, visiting at writing festivals, through a couple of letters I sent to the Smithsonian magazine questioning their manipulation of photos (especially one of Walt Whitman, which irked both Phil and me).

I was amazed and grateful that he was so generous with his time. He was a serious, big-time poet — friend of the Pulitzer-winner Stephen Dunn, acquaintance of Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Ellsberg, co-editor of one of the standard college poetry textbooks. Yet, he made time for me, telling me what he’d liked about a poem I had published, accepting my responses to his poems with grace and generosity, as if I were a major editor from a major publishing house. I’d get frustrated, like the writer of the Stoneboat blog, when a submission of mine was turned down. Phil would write to me and say, “don’t worry, I still get rejection letters, too.” I could never believe it: someone of Phil’s talent and stature getting turned down? My first question was often, what kind of dumbbell editor said no to something Phil submitted. But he’d explain more about the process, about how poems have to fit what editors want for a publication and sometimes, even if they’re very good, they don’t fit. So, you move on, submit somewhere else.

Over the last two years, Phil and I continued to write e-mails often, but they became as much about health issues as poetry. When his acute leukemia first struck, he and his partner Alixa went through some nightmarish moments. Some difficult, grueling treatments. My mother has terminal cancer, too, yet she’s been able to respond remarkably well to the various treatments she’s been given — far outliving her original prognosis. Phil would often write, asking for updates on my mother, saying her survival was one of the inspirations for his own battle. Another inspiration, interestingly, was the construction of the new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings football team. When Phil was in the hospital for chemo or blood transfusions, he could often see work progressing on the stadium. It became a metaphor for him. Just as doctors had to tear him down — get rid of all the bad blood cells, all the cancer cells — so they could rebuild him with new blood cells, new bone marrow cells, the same thing was going on outside his hospital window. The old Metrodome was torn down, making way for the new stadium, which was built up and out as he looked on.

He was, he said, going to be like that new stadium. And for a time he was. Remarkably, he prevailed in his first round against the leukemia. He took such good care of himself, running, bicycling, eating well, that doctors said he had the body of a 60-year-old, not a 75-year-old, and it helped him push back the leukemia. He wrote more, he gave more readings, he kept encouraging other poets. He was really happy when his former colleague, Susan McLean, gained national and international acclaim last year for two new books of poetry. Phil had encouraged Susan’s efforts to re-engage in writing poetry, especially formal verse. Susan does it very well now.

Then, of course, the cancer came back. Dammit. And we lost Phil on July 7. I’d gone to visit him just after he had entered hospice care this spring. It was a rainy day near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, and Phil’s voice was hoarse. But he was lively, curious, full of questions and genuine care about my own work and my family. Then we turned to his work, his family. He was surprised and humbled, he said, by the amount of fan mail and e-mails he’d been receiving, notes of encouragement and support from people he knew and many he’d maybe met once or twice or not at all. Well, I said, don’t be surprised: you’re a writer and a teacher. You’ve reached a lot of people, even those you don’t know. And he had. 

He also talked about dying. He was not afraid, but rather wanted to die well, set a good example of dying while still embracing life. That meant pulling the circles of his life closer, not worrying about the distractions or frustrations of the larger world, but living more fully with those closest to him — which meant his family. He loved Alixa, and was very proud of his children, as his poems have often revealed. He felt comfortable dying, knowing they had all grown into successful, confident people who wouldn’t go through their lives needing his help. He wasn’t worried, he said, that he’d get a 2 a.m. phone call from jail, asking to bail one of them out. No, no worries about that at all, which made it easier to let go.

In our conversation, as he talked about his sons and daughter he cupped two of his fingers together, bouncing them in the air to match his words as he counted their latest achievements and moves to new places. In a way, the gesture looked as if he was giving a blessing or benediction to his children’s lives.

As I left that day, he gave me four books — and would have given me more — insisting I pull some from his bookshelves. He found a grocery bag for me to carry them in, protecting them from the rain. I thought about what he had said about his children. Maybe it applies to the rest of us who knew him, too. We don’t have to call him at 2 a.m., nor do we have to e-mail him with a question or about his latest published poem. But what if we wanted to? It’s been a week and a half now, and I’ve gotten no new e-mails from Phil, nor sent any to him. Yesterday, I read something about the late poet John Berryman, who had taught at the University of Minnesota years ago. It was something I normally might have shared with Phil. Instead, I circled the paragraphs in the magazine I was reading, set down my pen, and placed the magazine back in the rack next to my chair. The cover closed, the story somewhere inside. I suppose I’ll leave it that way

Forest City authors event Thursday

Forest City, Iowa, where I live, is home to Winnebago Industries, the manufacturer of the Winnebago motorhomes that have been a hallmark of the American highway and American vacations for half a century. Every summer, Winnebago is host to a grand national rally that brings a few thousand people – and their RVs — to Forest City for more than a week of reveling.

The last three years, Forest City has also been home to the growing Tree Town country music festival – an outdoors festival that wraps around Memorial Day Weekend with nonstop concerts, with some of the best-known acts in country music performing. Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, to name a few. Tree Town draws about 20,000 people, rain or shine, cool or hot, in their tents and campers, or slick-sliding this year through mud that could suck away your flip-flops if you stepped wrong.

Well, this week, close to 20 Iowa and Minnesota authors gather in Forest City for a meet and greet/book fair that, while it may not leave you soaked in song or mud, is going to be a good time all the same. It is the third annual Puckerbrush Days Authors and Bloggers Meet & Greet. It is from 4:30-6:30 p.m., Thursday (July 14), at the Luise V. Hanson Library at Waldorf University.

And just as the other events have featured good performers or top-end RVs, there will be some really talented authors at Thursday’s meet and greet.

I hope local folks will attend, to enjoy the showcase of a region strong in writers, and to support those writers. And if you live close and enjoy reading of any kind, I hope you’ll make the drive. The authors represent a range of styles, and a range of subjects from history to science fiction to poetry to memoir to erotica to children’s books.

The Waldorf library is a great building, with ample room for authors and readers to have conversations about literature, an author’s latest project, or the changing publishing industry.

I will be there, selling and signing copies of my four books, and available to talk about writing or publishing in general. I’ll have some swag to give away, too, and maybe a couple of other surprises. My books are the poetry collection Grace, the essay collections The Right Place and Good Shepherds, and the local history book A Higher Level: Southwest State Women’s Tennis 1979-1992.

A former professor of mine, the retired Southwest Minnesota State University English professor James Zarzana, also will attend. Jim has published the first two books of his four-book science fiction series, the Marsco Saga. The second book in the series, Marsco Triumphant, came out just a short while ago. It’s speculative fiction that is timely, saying a lot about the modern world we inhabit and where it could be if some ugly, destructive or intrusive trends continue their current courses.

Tim Bascom, the creative writing program director at Waldorf, will also attend. Tim’s second memoir, Running to the Fire, was recently published by the University of Iowa Press. It’s about his experiences as a teen-aged son of missionaries in Ethiopia in the late 1970s as a Marxist revolution was taking place. It’s harrowing, but also graced with moments of real humanity. And it’s got a great additional layer of reflection as the grown-up Tim the author interweaves his later realizations and analysis into the observations the teen-aged Tim is making at the time in Ethiopia. It’s a coming-of-age memoir, but also thought-provoking about issues and events that continue to affect the world today (wars, the well-intended but disruptive presence of Europeans and Americans in east-African nations, and the not-well-intended and equally disruptive presence of European and Americans with arms to sell, riches to be gleaned.) Well-written, thoughtful – it’s a book you all ought to read.

Jamie Lee Scott, a rural Forest City resident who has become a national powerhouse crime and suspense novelist, is also scheduled to attend. She is a USA Today and Amazon best-selling author of two crime-novel series, and has begun to write romantic comedies as well. Jamie is the real thing: her crime novels are well-researched, have an edge but also humor, and memorable characters — and she is reaching a lot of readers. And we may not see her much more in Forest City. Her husband and she have sold their business, and Jamie is so booked as an author these days, that it’s a treat that she will be at the event Thursday. Don’t miss her.

Another Forest City novelist returns for the third year, too, Barbara Mills, who writes under the name Bartenn Mills. Her third novel, Vanilla Lies, is set in Hollywood. Her first two novels launched her “Garfield Falls” mystery series line.

Among the other authors and bloggers scheduled to take part are:

 

Quincey Benson, Forest City. Quincey blogs at a slightlybetterwife.com

Karen Carr, Mason City. Karen’s website is here

Karen M. Hutzel, Mason City. 

Kellina Kilts, Mason City, at her site.

 

Jen Naumann, Elmore, Minn.

 

Margaret Smolik, Osage

Kathleen Stauffer, Osage

Carol Sisterman, St. Ansgar

Steven Thompson, Osage

Bonnie Warrington, Decorah

 

•••

The full Puckerbrush Days schedule can be found here: click

If you’re not aware, Puckerbrush Days takes its name from the original name of Forest City. The town was initially called Puckerbrush, which is a type of scrub brush or scrubby tree with small, hard berries that are thickly coated with a white wax.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nixon lurks

In Trump, in Clinton, in Kenneth Starr. …

Like a bad movie monster – one that’s both cheesy and creepy – the ghost of Richard Nixon never goes away. It seems to be back this summer, showing up exactly where you’d expect —  places where corruption breeds best. The presidential campaign and major-college sports.

The Nixon who erased tape recordings from the Oval Office, and refused to turn over many more hours of recordings until courts and Congress compelled him to is hanging around in echoes over Hillary Clinton’s e-mail controversy. Late last month, results of the State Department inspector-general’s investigation were released. Clinton broke State Department rules by having her own, private e-mail server, a blow to her credibility on ethics and judgment. But, the report concluded, Clinton did not break any laws.

Donald Trump, on the other hand … He is actually the presidential candidate in court with legal trouble these days. As the federal class-action lawsuit against his now-defunct Trump University progresses, Trump sounds a lot like the Nixon who once protested “I am not a crook.” Well, Nixon was. And, according to more documents in the lawsuit unsealed this week, so is Trump. Former employees and former students in Trump U say what prosecutors and federal officials have been saying for a while, that Trump U was nothing but a con with Trump himself orchestrating and inspiring it through methods including a 400-page sales “playbook,” that explained how to pressure would-be students into forking over more and more money. The environment at Trump U has been described as a combination of a Ponzi scheme and those rude, annoying people who want to sell you a time-share condo. There have been accusations that say the aggressive sales approach has included instances of elder financial abuse, and that employees were told to get prospective “students’ to pay far more than what they could obviously afford, encouraging them to max out their credit cards. All that for a lot of bogus or flimsy advice on how to get rich quick and become a real-estate mogul. Infomercials, in other words, that sold a scam.

Kenneth Starr. After all those years and millions of dollars chasing the Clintons over Whitewater, it is former special prosecutor Starr who has lost his job in disgrace. Much like Nixon in 1974. Starr was fired last week as president of Baylor University and resigned this week as Baylor’s chancellor in the wake of a truly horrible scandal involving Baylor’s football program. The head football coach and athletic director have also lost their jobs. Baylor’s football team was a bad, bad thing – it may have been winning on the field in recent years, but criminal charges and an outside investigation have revealed a pattern of violence among its players, specifically several incidents of sexual assault, and say that football coaches and officials tried to intimidate victims from reporting the crimes or retaliated against those who did. Baylor’s Board of Regents “condemned a university leadership that, it said, ‘created a cultural perception that football was above the rules.’” We’ve heard that before. Too many times.

 And, lastly, the political dirty tricks made famous by Nixon and his minions – and ineptly displayed during the failed Watergate break-in – are back in the news with a stories about organizations in both parties which have tried to pass themselves off as journalists in efforts to dig up all kinds of dirt on political opponents. It’s a million-dollar industry these days, a shady one, with criminal convictions and behavior that’s a cross between the CIA and unethical private eyes.

Ah, Nixon, Nixon, Nixon.

Re-blogging: Give this author your attention

I am re-posting this book review, written by Les Edgerton, about the novel First Born of an Ass, and the follow-up note to readers and followers Edgerton wrote about Guillermo (William) O’Joyce. I haven’t yet read the novel, but recently I read O’Joyce’s collection of essays Miller, Bukowski and their Enemies. It’s one of the most powerful books about writing and the writer’s life I’ve ever read — the fearlessness and strength a writer must have, the belief in the importance of getting to the truth of things, in any form of writing.

As this review shows, Les Edgerton is in awe of First Born of an Ass. Thanks to Les for writing this, and many thanks to O’Joyce for his career and courage. 

(If you click the above link to First Born of an Ass, you’ll notice the first blurb. It’s written by Norman Mailer.)

• • •

REVIEW
FIRST BORN OF AN ASS
William Joyce

I’ve never written a review like this and am unlikely to ever do so again. The reason is I’ve never been totally thunderstruck by a book such as William Joyce’s First Born of an Ass. In lieu of a review, in which I am unable to do its genius even close to suitable justice, I’m going to use the email I sent to William Joyce, upon reading its last page. I cannot say what this book did to me better.

Mr. William Joyce, I just finished FIRST BORN OF AN ASS. I am utterly unworthy to write a review, but I shall try. This is the book God would have written if He could write.

Your book has leaped over all books I’ve read in my lifetime. I cannot talk about it now. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to talk about it.

I am going to go to bed and try to figure out who I am. To be honest, I am shattered. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write again and that is the truth. One thing I do know; when I am able I am going to do everything in my power to get this book reissued. This is far, far beyond Nobel Prize worthy.

Thank you for the gift of your genius.

Respectfully,
Les Edgerton

That is the email I sent him. I realize this opinion is firmly attached to whatever small literary reputation I may have and that may be considered risky and even foolhardy. But, I fully stand by it. I will not compromise what I feel about this book in the least, reputation and all that be damned. If you can point out a better book, I’ll read it. And, if there is a better book out there, then we all might as well give up.

The only action people should take is to get this book reissued or republished. Please read it.

–Les Edgerton, Author, The Rapist, The Bitch, Monday’s Meal and others.
End of review

P.S. William Joyce is still alive and living in St. Augustine, FL. He embodies the very concept of “writer.” He is virtually destitute and has been making his living by playing his harmonica outside of restaurants for coins until the police made him cease. The only place you can buy most of his books are from used copies via abebooks and the like… of which he doesn’t realize a cent. He has a new novel written, but it’s in a storage locker in Miami and he’s trying to get enough money to get down there and retrieve it and send it to an agent and publisher. If anyone is in a position to help him out, please let me know. In my opinion, he’s a national treasure. He does have one book available as an ebook, a collection of essays, under one of his pen names, Guillermo O’Joyce, titled MILLER, BUKOWSKI & THEIR ENEMIES. He does realize royalties from this one, so please consider glomming onto a copy. Thank you.

Update: William Joyce just gave me permission to post his phone number and email address. Phone nr is 904-325-3494 and email address is guillermojoyce@gmail.com. He’s very tired today so if you contact him, email is maybe better?

Two poems in new Waldorf Literary Review

Thanks to the editors and staff of the Waldorf Literary Review for taking two of my poems for their annual issue, which came out this week. It’s cool to be published in the local literary review, especially when it’s a really good publication, which this is.

Here’s one of the poems:

 

An Old Veteran Who Has Already Served,

Who No Longer Wants to March

Dana Yost

Hotter this year than last,
the crowd smaller, too.
how many times had he done
this now? Too goddamn many.
He had thrown away the cap
once, said it had been lost. But they
brought him another, creased, firm,
right out of the box from
the Legion.
He did not want to live in the past.
But the past kept trying to live in him.
Or they tried to make it live in him,
these committee members, organizers
of parades and programs, poppy
sellers, the tut-tutting nags of small-town
duty. They wanted him out there, always,
In front of a grand stand or band shell,
or another monument being dedicated,
Out there, out front so when a flag was raised,
or trumpet played in mourning
he would lift his right arm,
cock the elbow, snap the flattened palm
to his forehead — he was the cue
for all the rest: now, boys and girls,
now you salute. The old man
says so.
God, he tired of it.
And this heat.
He remembered the gut-turning
stench of summertime asphalt
from grade school – like carbon coming alive,
like the Blob from the movies

swallowing your guts and
then your bones and he sought distraction
so he wouldn’t heave while the same speaker
gave the same speech as
last year. Smile
at the brunette from the Guard?
Wave at the dark-curled baby,
get it to laugh like a cough
telling the speaker to wrap it up?

He felt a squeeze on his elbow.
Mrs. Smith, the chairwoman —
she wanted to get him to the stage.
He nodded, picked up his cane, the one
for formal occasions — chrome knob
over red oak. Then he gave
Mrs. Smith’s ass a pinch, right through
her powder blue skirt. Her “ooh”
of surprise was audible, and her feet skipped
forward– the instinct
of shock.
What the hell. That one
was for the boys who didn’t
make it back. Tony Marietta, Pete Thompson,
Eddie, JD, the Flopper. They could
have used a good piece of ass if
they’d known what
was coming – tracer bullets, mortar before
dawn: black-rock canyon,
death-trap Korea.
Yeah, Mrs. Smith,
That was for them.

 

Brought together by Prince

My son went out to Paisley Park last night, before it rained. He wanted to see the crowd, the scene, the memorials – and be part of them – that continued to gather outside the recording studio complex where Prince had died last Thursday morning.

“There are a lot of people,” he said, calling me on his way back.

There sure are.

A lot of people, a lot of tributes.

Fans clutching flowers and homemade signs at Paisley Park or First Avenue, the club in downtown Minneapolis where the young Prince often performed, fans posting videos on Facebook or calling up his songs on their smart phones. Bridges, ballparks, Broadway, landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower – all lit up in purple light. Musicians and singers from classic rocker Bruce Springsteen to the cast of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton” to the country band Little Big Town to the falsetto-voiced pop star Adam Levine singing Prince songs on stage. The 92-year-old magazine the New Yorker quickly coming up with a new cover for this week’s issue: a painting of purple rain drops falling against a purple background.

Why such an outpouring of grief, respect, tribute for Prince, the 57-year-old musician from the Twin Cities?

Many of the reasons are so clear and have been stated so often I am only going to quickly list them here: he was a musical genius, not a word to throw around lightly, of course. But he was: a brilliant composer, who could play – and sometimes did – every instrument on albums he recorded. Not just a few tooted notes on a horn, or a simple strum on a bass guitar. He was exceptional at them all. Exceptional. He fused so many forms of modern music – blues, jazz, pop, funk, rhythm-and-blues, hip-hop. The hard-rock guitar solo that crescendos in his pop-funk-blues hit “When Doves Cry” is unforgettable. It’s not just that he fused all these styles and created almost a new form of music, and certainly a new style called the “Minneapolis Sound.” It’s that he could be a master within each of those forms. Jack of all styles, master of them all, too.

I said I was going to make a list and then I strayed into a longer discussion.

Here’s more of the list: he played and sang with such intensity and passion, whether rocking out or dancing, or in ballads. His live shows were amazing. You got your money’s worth if you went (Elton John called Prince the greatest entertainer he’s ever seen). He fought the corporate system, something most regular Americans could relate to. He became his own industry in the long-held American tradition of a self-made man: a successful business owner with several dozen employees, built his own state-of-the-art recording studio. He shared his musical talents: many other musicians have sung his praises in recent days for his collaborative heart – how he would write songs for others to help artists get their start, or revive an aging singer’s career; how he supported new bands. He was committed to his religion. And he was committed to his home state, one of the most remarkable qualities about a performer who was so shy, and yet so easily identifiable. He stood out in Minnesota, and maybe could have lived more anonymously in the big crowds of L.A. or New York. He even tried L.A. for a while, but never did go Hollywood: he lived in Minnesota, rooted for Minnesota sports teams, shopped locally (!). Would nod at a fan when he was recognized. There have long been jokes about Minnesotans’ inferiority complexes – Garrison Keillor has made great radio and literary hay by joking Minnesotans are pretty much satisfied with simply being “above average.” So it meant something, it was a compliment, when Prince showed repeatedly that he preferred his home state.

He was flawed, of course. Two failed marriages. He made a couple movies after “Purple Rain” that were stinkers. He could be a tough businessman, tough on employees and reporters in his insistence on secrecy and control, tough in the studio as he demanded perfection. But he often owned up to his flaws and would apologize. He was accountable, in other words, for his behavior – something so many celebrities and very wealthy people have forgotten to be.

So, we have so many reasons to have liked Prince – to admire, respect, even be awed by him. That’s why we celebrate who he was. That’s why we grieve who we have lost. My son took a photo at Paisley Park last night that showed the semi-truck/bus that Prince would take on tour. My son noted the irony: “he’ll never tour again.”

• • • •

I am going to play pop psychologist for a moment, though, too.

In recent days, I have talked with a couple of people who were surprised by the outpouring of love for Prince. These were people who are not especially pop or rock music fans, or who are from an older generation. One was a man almost 80, who watched the TV news and understood that Prince was a great musician but did not get why even casual fans have been so moved by his death.

I thought about that for a little bit. I’m kind of a casual fan now, although when I was young I bought and played and replayed many of Prince’s albums. (Prince was a couple of years older than I am, and his first two big hit albums were released when I was in my early 20s.) I was one of those who was shaken last Thursday: my friend Tom Berg sent me a couple of text messages saying news was breaking that a body had been found at Paisley Park and that it was suspected to be Prince’s. I turned on WCCO Radio from Minneapolis and, within a few minutes, one of its reporters at the scene at Paisley Park reported live on the air that authorities had confirmed Prince’s death. I texted Tom back a bunch of times with that news. 

So why were so many jolted, why did surprise and then grief pour from so many of us? Is there something more than just Prince’s being a wonderful musician or dying so young?

For Minnesotans, sure.

I am a Minnesotan, too, and have always been proud that Prince was – and remained – one of us.

But in a strange way – and I don’t mean to sidestep the fact that he has died – I wonder if we all needed this. Needed it now. Needed to be brought together by Prince’s death.

Don’t get me wrong on this. I am not saying it is good he died. But I am wondering if, in his death, some good things are happening.

It seems this has been such a long, difficult past couple of years. Terrorism attacks around the world. An ugly, long presidential election campaign that has been full of rancor – and now has become tedious in its rancor and divisiveness. Racial tension in so many American cities, so many American homes.

It has been hard.

But somehow, all of a sudden, it seems as if we could all breathe together again – as we mourn, as we celebrate, as we remember Prince.

These moments happen in our history. On the national level: The Pearl Harbor attack. The assassination of President Kennedy. The 9/11 attacks. More locally, incidents like tornadoes or floods. For as divided as we sometimes are as a country or a people, it is always amazing to me how we can also pull together.

It’s not just at times of tragedy that we do. The nation stopped, too, in the summer of 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong take man’s first step on the moon. When Howard Sinker, the online editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, shared on Facebook an image of the Star Tribune’s 13062259_862850668375_2630776886910362501_ncover the day after Prince’s death, I immediately thought of two other front pages from the Star Tribune that looked very similar and reflected two other events that also had brought the whole state, the whole region together: the front pages the day after the Minnesota Twins had won the 1987 and the 1991 World Series.

We lost Prince. But we have also been reminded, I think, through him that America can be be good. Still is good.

Maybe we all needed that reminder. And maybe we needed to have something in common again — to rally around something good, Prince’s music, and to join, emotionally, around the same thing: our shock, our sadness, at losing him.

And maybe that is important in this time when politicians like to tell us all that is wrong with America. Prince worked hard, very hard. He cared about quality in the products, if you will, that his customers – his fans – bought. He had passion for what he did. Like great inventors of the American past, he saw new ways of doing things – then had the drive and belief to do them. He believed in community, and often put his money – all kinds of stories of his charitable giving have surfaced – where his community was.

Maybe, in addition to honoring his music, some of us are thankful for all this. The soft-spoken, shy but intelligent Prince showed that we don’t have to be an ugly, shouting nation, that our capacity for greatness and brilliance still exists and can be achieved not through vitriol but through the age-old qualities of trying to be a decent person, through hard work, commitment, and even – when you’re rocking a guitar solo under stage lights – through the pleasure of creativity and art.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am drawing too many big, broad conclusions from Prince’s death.

For now, though, let me believe I’m right.